What is targeted cancer therapy

Targeted therapy is a type of drug treatment that attacks the specific features of cancer cells, known as molecular targets, to stop the cancer growing and spreading.

How does targeted therapy work?

Targeted therapy drugs circulate throughout the body. Each drug acts on a specific molecular target within or on the surface of cancer cells (for example, a gene or protein). These molecular targets are involved in the growth and survival of cancer cells. Blocking them can kill cancer cells or slow their growth, while minimising damage to healthy cells. Targeted therapy drugs work in a different way to chemotherapy drugs. Chemotherapy drugs also circulate through the body, but they particularly affect cells that divide rapidly. They kill cancer cells, but can also damage other rapidly dividing cells, such as healthy cells in a person’s mouth, stomach, skin or hair. Targeted therapy drugs are used to control cancer growth. They often cause the signs and symptoms of cancer to reduce or disappear. This means that many people can return to their usual activities. The drugs may need to be taken long-term, and you will need to have regular tests to monitor the cancer.

Who can have targeted therapy?

Your doctors will test the cancer to see if the cells contain a particular molecular target that is helping the cancer grow. Different people with the same cancer type may receive different treatments based on the test results.

How targeted therapy is given

Targeted therapy drugs are usually prescribed by a medical oncologist or heamatologist. They are commonly given in repeating cycles, with rest periods in between. Some drugs may be taken daily for many months or even years. They may be given on their own, or in combination with chemotherapy drugs.

These drugs are generally given in different ways;

  • As tablets that you can swallow
  • Through a drip into a vein in your arm (IV infusion)
  • As an injection under the skin

How long you take the drugs will depend on the aim of the treatment, how the cancer responds, and the side-effects you experience. Your treatment team can give you more details.

Some people can react to the infusion process (e.g. difficulty breathing, nausea and skin rashes). Reactions can occur during or several hours after the infusion. You will be monitored and may be given medicine to help prevent this. Reactions are more common with the first infusion, so it may be given more slowly than later treatments.

Possible side effects

Although targeted therapy minimises harm to healthy cells, it can still have side effects. These vary greatly for each person depending on the drug you have and how your body responds. Some people don’t experience any side effects, while others have several.

Targeted therapy drugs commonly cause skin problems, for example;

  • Sensitivity to sunlight, skin redness, swelling, and dry flaky skin
  • A rash that looks like acne or pimples on the face, scalp or upper body (acneiform rash)
  • A skin reaction on the palms and soles causing tenderness and blisters (hand-foot syndrome)

Other common side effects include fever, tiredness, joint aches, nausea, headaches, diarrhoea, heavy bleeding and bruising, and high blood pressure.

Less commonly, some targeted therapy drugs can affect the way the heart, thyroid or liver works, or increase the risk of getting an infection.

For more information on targeted therapies you can download the Targeted Therapies factsheet

The information available on this page should not be used as a substitute for advice from a properly qualified medical professional who can advise you about your own individual medical needs. It is not intended to constitute medical advice and is provided for general information purposes only. See our Disclaimer.